Frank Bruni of the New York Times, in scalding-hot-take mode while filling in for Tom Friedman, wrote a piece this week called “The Center Is Sexier Than You Think.”
Bruni’s screed is the latest in an increasingly comic (and panicked, and over-blown) series of media reactions to the surprise primary win of young Bronx Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Ocasio-Cortez is a Democratic Socialist who worked on the 2016 campaign of Bernie Sanders. She espouses several political views – like abolishing ICE, favoring a government jobs program and free college education – that make D.C. thinkfluencers nervous.
Since she ousted ossifying Democratic Party lifer Joe Crowley in the New York primary, pundits have been scrambling to explain her win as something other than a symbolic rejection of insider politics.
They’re saying she won because of identity politics, because of clever marketing and because she’s a working-class local. We’ve seen the Washington Post argue there was no anti-insider meaning in her victory, because “the argument that there is a Democratic establishment resisting the progressive tide is a straw man.”
If the existence of an obstructionist Democratic Party is one fairy tale, Bruni now adds another: that the rise of “Democratic Socialists” and “Justice Democrats” is a sexy story.
Actually, Bruni insists, it’s centrism that’s really “dreamy.”
His argument is that you need centrist positions to win swing districts, and winning with an incremental agenda is more exciting than losing on a platform of sweeping change. Citing the special election victory of centrist wonder boy Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, Bruni writes:
“When Lamb, a Pennsylvania Democrat, triumphed in a special election there last March, snatching a seat that had been in Republican hands, he did so with a moderate aura and an opposition to single-payer health care.”
Lamb, whose aw-shucks handsomeness recalls a Band of Brothers extra, is the wet dream of new establishment Democrats. He’s ex-military, a father, flexible on guns, without a ton of political experience and with a working class background (without the working class politics).
America’s high mullah of conventional wisdom, Jonathan Chait, even breathlessly suggested Democrats “run the Conor Lamb strategy over and over.” Noting there were plenty of “ridiculously wholesome” types to choose from, Chait suggested (as if it were a new idea) that Democrats steal the Republican electoral strategy:
“[The Republicans’] strategy can be hacked. The most powerful Republican theme is that Democrats are not ‘one of us’: They aren’t tough, and they don’t love their country. A candidate with a compelling biography — especially those with a military background — can disarm these attacks pretty easily.”
Lamb is what DCCC chair Ben Ray Lujan had in mind when he said last year Democrats would run “candidates that fit the district.” Which, as Rolling Stone’s Bob Moser wrote, was code for, “You can hate abortion and Obamacare and love guns and run like a Republican, and we’ll still support you if we think you can win.”
This, ultimately is the message: In order to win, Democrats need to pull a fake-out by pushing squeaky-clean ex-vets without political histories, and hope that right-leaning voters will project their backwards-ass dreams onto these walking blank canvases.
The notion that Democrats need to look and act more like Republicans to win elections has been practically a religious tenet in Washington for more than 30 years. From the embrace of NAFTA to welfare reform to triangulation to repealing the Glass-Steagall Act to slobbering over Wesley Clark (instead of opposing the Iraq war) to hiring infamous Republican media hitman David Brock, this soul-sucking drift has been sold to voters as an electorally necessary compromise. Now we’re supposed to understand that it’s sexy, too?
This is the Democratic Party that lost the presidency in 2016 to a crypto-fascist game-show host with near-record negatives – only ex-Klansman David Duke in 1992 was a more roundly-despised candidate than Trump – and legislatively has for a decade now suffered mass losses on the national and state levels.
Why? Because, as noted here previously, “centrists” don’t really exist. There may be individuals who self-identify that way, but the demographic is mostly a fiction. There’s donor money to be had there, but not many votes.
When the Democrats abandoned their reliance on labor in the Eighties, and began to be funded by the same big companies that backed Republicans, our politics devolved into a contest between two employer-supported factions. Neither really cared about the numerical majority of poor or working-class voters, so they had to get creative with their politics.
The Republican pitch was an open con: the CEO sect hoovering Middle American votes by trotting out xenophobic Bible-thumpers who waved the flag and pretended to love beer, chainsaws, snowmobiles and shooting foreigners, while mostly just deregulating the economy.
The Democratic pitch revolved around social issues like choice and was far less transparently fraudulent. But the party’s proponents had one bad habit that kept putting them in a hole. Repeatedly, when asked to make policy changes favored by sizable majorities of Democratic voters (and often by majorities of all voters), party leaders said: We can’t do that: we need to win!
Remember when a majority of Democrats were against the Iraq war, but 29 Democratic Senators still ended up voting to give Bush the power to invade? Remember when, five years later, a war-weary 82 percent of Democrats wanted out of Iraq, but Nancy Pelosi said it was necessary to keep authorizing funds for the war to “support the troops” and “not leave them in harm’s way”?
Votes like this were always explained in terms of expediency, i.e., what was necessary to conquer the middle and win elections. On war issues especially, it was like Bill Clinton said: Scared people would “rather have someone strong and wrong than weak and right.” If Dems wanted to get back in power, they had to shelve conscience, at least temporarily, and embrace pragmatism.
But Iraq turned out to be a disaster, morally and politically. The party would have been better off listening to its voters. Party support of the invasion was based on fictitious pragmatic concerns, as were many positions it would take in defiance of constituents.
What actual people are against importing cheap Canadian generic pharmaceuticals? Where’s the group of people intent on protecting our thousand-headed hydra of insurers, so that doctors and hospitals can waste time and money on paperwork? What individual human being is out there who just can’t stand the thought of allowing Medicare to negotiate lower bulk prices?
For that matter, where’s that sexy vote-rich crowd of people who are hell-bent on making sure banks have easier stress tests, and don’t have to increase their capital reserves? Where’s the mob that really wants to preserve the payroll-tax cutoff for high-income earners? That wants desperately to remove Malaysia from a list of human traffickers so it can join a free-trade pact?
There are no such people. These are not human positions. These are the positions of health insurers, pharmaceutical companies, job-exporting manufacturers, defense contractors and other high-dollar donors.
Nobody sits around the dinner table demanding that we keep derivative exchanges opaque, or retain the carried-interest tax break. You’re not winning independents with those positions. You’re just stroking a few lobbyists and their clients.
This is what we’re really talking about, when we talk about the “center” in America. The interests behind these positions are only the “center” in the sense that they’re a numerically tiny group of fat cats sitting between two increasingly enormous populations of pissed-off human voters.
It’s no Scooby-Doo mystery what most Democratic voters want: Stricter gun laws, stronger support of unions, reduced defense spending, a raise in the minimum wage, single-payer health care, tougher enforcement of white collar crime, an end to pointless wars and countless other relatively obvious demands.
But one of the key contentions of people like Bruni is that actually asking for these things is an electoral non-starter. He quotes a Third Way think-tanker as saying the next Democratic House majority should “primarily be focused on their oversight role and stopping Trump.”
Which isn’t bad, but conditioning people to expect less is also an old political bogeyman tactic. This sad-sack “wait til’ next year” routine is just a way to scare people away from voting their own interests. It’s not sexy. It doesn’t even work. It’s time to try something new.